A new excavation of an ancient Jerusalem road expected to draw modern-day pilgrims

Inside City of David’s excavation of the ancient Pilgrimage Road, which once led directly to the Second Temple

JERUSALEM — On a recent Thursday afternoon, cars sped past the walls of the Old City while tourists gathered in small corners of shade. The city was alive with the chaotic energy that accompanies the end of the week, when the start of Shabbat is less than 24 hours away. Drivers navigating the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan honked repeatedly, knowing it would do no good in the rush-hour traffic of Israel’s capital city. 

More than 15 feet underground, there’s another road, a quiet one, which is — for now, at least — off-limits to the people above. It’s less than a half-mile long, but its history dates back some 2,000 years. 

Known as the “stepped street,” or the “Pilgrimage Road,” the wide stone slabs that make up this pedestrian street were believed to be built by the Romans. The road was rediscovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 2004, after a sewage pipe burst. Archaeologists expect visitors to be able to walk the length of the road in two years, following the completion of an intricate excavation process. 

For more than a decade now, archaeologists have overseen an underground excavation of the road, using heavy iron beams to prop up the above-ground infrastructure while they hollow out everything that has accumulated on top of the road over the past two millennia. Historians and archaeologists assert that the road connected the Pool of Siloam, a Roman-era pool used by Jewish pilgrims as a ritual bath, to the Second Temple. 

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people visit the City of David National Park, a popular tourist attraction and historical site in East Jerusalem that oversees several major archaeological projects related to ancient Jerusalem and biblical history. But the number of visitors is expected to increase dramatically when the Pilgrimage Road opens, and the world’s Christians come in larger numbers to walk on a sacred stretch of ground that Jesus is considered likely to have walked. 

“I’ve been asked by many congressmen and many senators, ‘What is the likelihood that Jesus walked on this road?’ And I tell them, ‘A conservative estimate is almost certainly 100%,’” said Ze’ev Orenstein, director of international affairs at the City of David Foundation.

“In a few years time, people will literally be able to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors, in the footsteps of the Bible,” said Orenstein, the appointed tour guide for foreign dignitaries who visit the site. 

But because this is Israel, the tour that Orenstein offers at the City of David — and, specifically, the Pilgrimage Road — is not just a pass through a list of rote historical facts, but a political argument, made to convey to international visitors why he thinks Jerusalem must always remain under Israeli control. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after capturing it from Jordan in the Six-Day War in 1967.

The City of David Foundation has faced criticism for both its archaeological digs in the heavily populated Arab neighborhood, whose residents oppose the excavations, and for promoting Jewish settlement in Silwan.

“The City of David becomes the front lines for the battle over the heritage of Jerusalem,” said Orenstein, an American who moved to Israel 20 years ago. “Jerusalem’s biblical heritage, going back thousands of years, is not simply a matter of faith, but a matter of fact.” On the other side of that battle, in Orenstein’s view, are Palestinian leaders who have attempted to deny Jewish ties to Jerusalem. (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has on many occasions denied Jewish historical claims to Jerusalem.)

Regardless of the political controversy that surrounds the City of David’s work in this crowded modern neighborhood, the findings from its archaeological digs have reshaped historical understandings of ancient Jerusalem. 

On the June evening that Orenstein led Jewish Insider on a tour of the Pilgrimage Road, light bulbs illuminated his path as he descended the stairs from the top of the road. Metal arches, connecting the beams and metal slats that propped up the modern road above, covered the steps. 

Pilgrimage Road – Podium

Wherever an excavation was still in progress, blue tarps sat next to mounds of dirt. Orenstein reached into the pile and pulled out an object, dusting it off with his hand — something ceramic, most likely many hundreds of years old. The rubble is packed into bags and carted to another archaeological site, where it is inspected for other ancient objects like the pottery that Orenstein picked up. 

“The things that are being found along the Pilgrimage Road excavation today are primarily from a time capsule of about 2,000 years ago,” he explained. “It’s preserving the modern neighborhood while uncovering the ancient heritage.” 

At the bottom of the steps, next to the remnants of the Pool of Siloam, a small section is open to the public. A wooden market stand, with a fake goat and wicker baskets of fake fruit, stands next to the steps, meant to mimic the busy commercial corridor that might have lined the steps in ancient times. Jews would have visited the road on the pilgrimage holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. 

Any would-be pilgrims who visit the site today will not emerge from the cavernous steps at the entrance to the Second Temple. Instead, once they reach the scorching sunlight of the Middle Eastern summer, they will arrive back at the center of a modern geopolitical battle over land, history and religion.

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